I think most of us would agree that garlic is indispensable in the kitchen. I mean, just try to imagine salsa, spaghetti sauce, pickles, stir-fry or a thousand other culinary delights without it! I can’t! I don’t even want to try. Garlic turns “dull” into “delish.” It is also said to have have many wonderful health-promoting properties. It has even been said to repel vampires!
I don’t know about the vampires, but garlic is pretty rad in my book. While garlic is readily available year-round at Willy Street Co-op, as well as most other grocery stores, growing it yourself is fun, easy and it just doesn’t get any more local than this. Growing garlic takes very little soil, so even those with very small gardens can grow most of what they might need in a year. For growing success, all you need to know is which variety to plant, where and when to plant it, when to harvest it, and how to cure and store it. These are exactly the things I am going to cover in this article, so let’s get started.
What is Garlic?
Native to Central Asia, garlic (Allium sativum) is a hardy perennial cousin to the onion, shallot, leek and chive. It grows underground, producing several cloves and has long been a staple in the Mediterranean region, as well as a frequent seasoning in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Garlic has been used as both food and medicine in many cultures for thousands of years, dating at least as far back as when the Giza pyramids were built. Garlic bulbs were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. Whether it was for medicine or for culinary use is unclear, but either way, the presence of it indicates that it was was highly prized and thought to be important for a prince to have in the afterlife.
Since it was found almost exclusively in ethnic dishes in working class neighborhoods garlic was frowned upon by American gourmets until the first quarter of the twentieth century. By 1940, it became a major ingredient in recipes. Today Americans consume more than 250 million pounds of garlic annually.
When you start shopping for seed, there are dozens of varieties of garlic to choose from in the catalogs. It can be difficult to choose. The main thing you need to remember is that there are two main types of garlic: softneck and hardneck. Both can be grown successfully in Wisconsin, but knowing the differences can help you select the variety right for you.
(*Seed catalogs and recommended reading appear at the end of the article.)
Softnecks get their name from the flexible stems characteristic of this family and are the kind of garlic you see in decorative braids adorning kitchen and are the standard type sold in grocery stores. Softneck garlic does not produce a flower stalk, or “scape.” They keep longer than hardneck varieties and can be stored at room temperature for six to eight months without any problems. If braiding is your plan, you definitely want a softneck variety. The downside: softnecks are harder to peel and are less hardy for our cold Wisconsin winters. Popular softneck varieties include Silverskin, New York White and Red Toch.
Hardneck are the hardiest varieties and are ideal for Wisconsin winters. They produce a flower stalk, or “scape” which can be cut to make a beautiful gourmet addition to recipes. As the scapes mature, they will produce topsets containing small bulbils that can be cut and scatter-planted right away, or saved for next year. When these scallion-like shoots sprout up, they can be dug up and the entire plant chopped and used in dishes to add flavor. Popular hardneck varieties include: German Red and Spanish Roja. The German Red produces curling stalks that eventually straighten out and a bulbil cluster as a flower.
Where and When to Plant
The cloves from the bulb are best planted in the autumn one to two weeks after the first hard freeze. Depending on the weather, this should be around October or November in Madison. Soil preparation should include loosening the soil to a depth of at least 12 inches and thoroughly mix in a one-inch layer of mature compost. In acidic soil, also mix in a light dusting of wood ashes.
How much garlic seed do you need? One pound of garlic “seed” (cloves) will plant about a 25-foot row (with 4” spacing between plants). Wait until just before planting to break bulbs into cloves. The larger outer cloves produce the best garlic. For most garlic varieties, you can expect an optimum 10-pound yield for every pound planted.
Plant four inches deep in well-drained soil. Your garlic should be planted where it will receive full sun throughout the growing season. If using the Square Foot Gardening (SFG) style or containers, space the cloves about 5 inches by 5 inches. For conventional row gardening, the cloves should be spaced 1 to 3 inches apart in rows that are 18 to 24 inches apart.
The last warmth of the autumn soil will get the roots forming and garlic tops may even begin to visibly sprout before the ground freezes completely. If tops emerge before it snows, a mulch layer should be applied in order to protect the little sprouts from extremely low winter temperatures. Use about 4 inches of straw for mulch, over which snow will lay an additional blanket to further protect. In the spring, pull the mulch back and the cloves will begin growing with vigor as the soil warms.
Weeding, Watering and General Tending
Weeds are a major enemy of garlic. Hand weeding is necessary early in in the growing season to encourage maximum bulb formation. Since garlic produces little foliage, it is not much competition for the prolific weeds that will spring up and quickly overtake the beds.
Watering should be managed carefully. Only give water when the soil is dry two inches or more below the surface. Garlic will grow best in soil that is moist but not wet. You don’t want them too dry, but if watered too often or if water sits on the crowns of the plants, rot can occur. Using soaker hoses or hand watering carefully is best.
Garlic does best in freely drained soil with plenty of organic matter. As mentioned earlier, compost or well-cured farm manure may be added for additional soil fertility. I like to use a little fish emulsion mixed with liquid seaweed now and then for an extra nutrient boost.
If you select to grow a hardneck variety, scapes can (and perhaps should) be cut to allow energy of the plant to be directed towards producing bulbs. As mentioned earlier, scapes make adelicious addition to recipes. The curling stalks can be a beautiful addition to flower arrangements as well.
Tips for cutting garlic scapes: If you are planning on eating them, don’t wait too long to cut. They are the most tender and have the best flavor when they are about 4 to 6 inches long. If using them for flower arrangements, you can wait longer.
Ideas for using fresh garlic scapes: (ideas provided by www.wegrowgarlic.com)
- Slice and add scapes to any stir fry recipe
- Add scapes to soup stock for a little fresh garlic flavor
- Chop scapes and add them to softened cream cheese for a tasty spread
- Chop scapes and add to sour cream to make dip
- Scapes are a great additions to salads
- Use scapes in any recipe just as you would use green onions
- Chop scapes and sprinkle over cottage cheese
- Add chopped scapes to bruschetta, guacamole, or salsa
- Add scapes as a topping to pizzas
- Chop and add scapes to sauce recipes
- Chop scapes and sprinkle them over pasta
- Batter-fried scapes are quite tasty
- Sauté chopped scapes about 5 minutes in olive oil and add to mashed potatoes
- Chop scapes and sprinkle over baked potatoes
- Add scapes to spinach pesto recipes
- Toss them in olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper and lightly grill
- Freeze or dehydrate them for later use (we blanch them before freezing them)
- Make garlic scape powder—it’s awesome!
- Tip: To improve the texture of the scapes in recipes like stir fries, you can put them in boiling water for two minutes to blanch them before adding them to your recipe.
After all the work of planting, weeding, tending and waiting, now comes the exciting part…you get to see the fruits of your labor. Don’t underestimate the satisfaction of unearthing a big ol’ head of garlic that you grew yourself. It is exhilarating! Harvesting your garlic crop at the right time is very important to overall success. You want the heads to be well-formed in order to be full sized and to store well over winter. At the same time, if left too long in the ground, your garlic may become over-ripe, the bulbs will start to break apart, and this does not store well. Since the bulbs are hidden underground, how do you know when they are ready? You can always dig one up and check, but reading the leaves will guide you as to when to start thinking about it.
Unlike onions, which can be allowed to stay in the ground even after all the leaves have died and still be fine, plucking your garlic at the ideal time is not as flexible. Most experts say that when several of the lower leaves go brown, but five or six up top are still green that is a good sign they are ready. Depending on the weather, this generally happens in Wisconsin around mid- to late-July. Certain varieties may be ready in early July.
Dig your bulbs out carefully with a shovel, as a pitch fork can damage the bulbs. Do not attempt to pull the garlic out by the stem at least not until all the soil around the bulb has been loosened. Brush as much of the soil from them as you can and handle the unearthed bulbs with care so as not to bruise. Bruised bulbs will not store well. It is important to keep the bulbs out of direct sunlight, as they can get sun damaged. Tip: use five-gallon buckets to hold your harvested garlic stalks and cover them with a sheet to shade. When harvest is complete, bring to a well-ventilated space to cure, such as a shed or garage.
There is a bit of a debate about whether or not to wash your garlic before curing. There are valid points on both sides of the argument. If the bulbs get wet and do not dry adequately, it can cause rot. However, if you weren’t able to brush off most of the soil as you harvested your garlic, soil stuck to your bulbs can also cause drying problems and rot. Only you can determine which is best for your situation. If you do have soil stuck on the bulbs, it is better to quickly wash it off before curing, than attempt to do so later.
Whether you wash your garlic or not, the plants should be spread out in a single layer on a screen, or hung up to dry in a well-ventilated, sheltered place where they will not be exposed to sun or rain, in a shed or garage for example. Allow to cure at room temperature for about two weeks. For softneck varieties, if you wish to braid your garlic, you will want to jump in before completely dry. Dry stalks can become brittle making it difficult to braid. For hardneck varieties, remove the tops about an inch above the bulbs once the leaves have turned brown and store in a cool, dry location.
Room temperature storage: The ideal environment for garlic storage has a temperature between 55 and 70 degrees, dry to moderate humidity and good air circulation.
Freezing: If you have a lot of garlic and do not anticipate using all of it within the next several months, you may want to consider freezing some. The unpeeled cloves of garlic may be frozen whole for use as needed, or you can peel, chop or puree the garlic before freezing. It is a stinky job and aromas tend to linger even through plastic wrap. For this reason, I prefer to freeze whole cloves. Also, consider using a wide-mouthed jar as a freezer container to help eliminate odors (and plastic).
Drying: Garlic lends itself well to drying and if placed in airtight containers, can last for years. Choose high-quality garlic with no bruises or discoloration. Peel cloves and slice to desired thickness. Place in food dehydrator at about 140ºF for about two hours, then 130ºF until dry. (If you want the garlic to be technically “raw,” you will have to set the dehydrator for under 115ºF. Drying will take longer, but the end result should be fine for storage). Store in cool, dry place.
Roasted Garlic Spread
- 7 medium heads of garlic
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
Directions: Preheat oven to 400ºF. Arrange unpeeled heads (not cloves, but entire heads) of garlic in a muffin pan that has been pre-oiled, or lined with paper muffin cups. Sprinkle garlic with olive oil and bake for 40 minutes to an hour. The garlic is done when it is soft and can be squeezed from its wrapper. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Serve on crackers, bread or cut up fresh vegetables. Leftovers can be stored in refrigerator for up to 3 days. Makes 10 servings.
- 3-5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1/2 large sweet onion, finely chopped
- 1 whole jalapeño pepper, finely chopped
- 1 habañero pepper, finely chopped (Optional. For heat lovers only.)
- 3-4 large Roma tomatoes, coarsely or finely chopped (depending on preference)
- 1 small bunch of fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
- 1/4 medium lime, squeezed
Directions: Place all ingredients in glass bowl and mix. I like to let mine sit overnight for the flavors to meld, but it can be served right away. Store in refrigerator in glass container with tight lid. This recipe can be made in advance and then be combined with other ingredients to make new and different variations. Here are a couple of my favorite tweaks:
- Chickpea Salad: add one cup cooked chickpeas and some fresh sunflower sprouts, toss and serve as a delicious salad.
- Pseudo Ceviche: add 1/2 avocado cut into chunks, and 1 cup chopped raw sushi grade (or cooked and cooled) white fish. Toss and serve immediately.
Growing Great Garlic, The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers, by Ron Engeland
The Complete Book of Garlic: A Guide for Gardeners, Growers, and Serious Cooks, by Ted Jordan Meredith
www.wegrowgarlic.com/catalog/ local grower located just north of Madison!
www.groworganic.com/ organic online supplier